Big Ben has bonged. Or rather, fittingly for such a manufactured fanfare, a virtual bong was arranged. As of 31 January, the UK has officially left the EU. This event, while treated as a great historic turning point in the media, will have had little immediate impact on the lives of most working-class people.
Among some, there is a sense of relief that things seem to be finally ‘moving on’ from the question of Brexit. Equally, there are Leave-supporting workers who hope that this event may lead to fulfilled promises – increased spending on our NHS, or a revival of manufacturing and skilled jobs in much-neglected parts of the country. Such hopeful sentiments were expressed by a few of those interviewed by the BBC on ‘Brexit day’.
For many others, there is deep trepidation about what the future will hold based on this Tory EU exit. There is concern that companies already planning closures, such as in the steel industry, may accelerate their plans, or that more may follow in their footsteps. There is worry that EU citizens living in the UK will face new and increased discrimination. There is justified distrust as to the real intentions of Johnson in negotiating the ‘future relationship’, as well as anger at his hope to strike a sweetheart trade deal with the monstrous Donald Trump.
But the truth is the hopes, fears, and aspirations of these two groups of working-class people – those labelled ‘Leavers’ and those labelled ‘Remainers’ – actually have much in common. The majority on both sides of this false divide want to see an end to crushing austerity. They want access to decent, well-paid jobs, for this generation and the next. They oppose racism and want a society which is less divided – one where solidarity and community is restored.
These interests, the shared interests of all working-class people, must now be placed centre stage. This is the challenge that faces the whole of the trade union and labour movement as we face down a Tory government with a newly found confidence.
It has been the failure to do just this – to clearly and consistently fight for the distinct interests of working class people – that has handed a bitterly divided, crisis-ridden Tory party a temporary lifeline.
Overcoming these mistakes, which have been made at the top of the Labour Party and trade unions alike, means understanding that workers’ interests are ultimately not reconcilable with those of the capitalists, whether in Britain or Europe. Their profits rest on the ability to exploit labour. The lower its price, the higher their margins.
A failure to understand this is at the root of the misdiagnosis currently going on as to the causes of Labour’s election loss. Even the left candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey, (who Socialist Alternative critically supports in the leadership election) has unfortunately made concessions towards the right following the defeat. Especially dangerous is the extent to which she is emphasising the question of ‘unity’ across the parliamentary Labour Party.
She makes these points even as rumours abound that up to 50 MPs from the Labour right could quit the party should she win the election. These are the very same MPs whose systematic undermining of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was central to Labour’s election loss.
As well as collaborating with the billionaire press to assassinate Corbyn’s character, the Blairites also systematically hemmed him in, extracting concessions on important political questions.
Among these organisers of defeat, Keir Starmer, who now incredibly presents himself as ‘left’, was a leading participant. Along with others, Starmer pushed Corbyn towards a ‘second referendum’ position on EU membership, something that was central to Labour’s election loss.
The failure of Long-Bailey to call this out, or of Corbyn to back Long-Bailey or organise any kind of campaign to transform Labour even after the election defeat, and her constant talk of ‘unity’ being key, means it is looking more and more likely that Starmer may succeed in winning this election, even winning the votes of some who previously supported Corbyn.
Socialists stand for the maximum unity of working-class people, without which the bosses and their Tory agents cannot be defeated. But by attempting to appease the Blairite political representatives of the capitalist class – who are deeply hostile towards all that Corbyn represents in terms of anti-austerity and anti-war politics – this, most crucial, unity has been undermined.
This was amply demonstrated by the way in which Brexit was allowed to become such a seemingly crucial dividing line running through the middle of the working class. Rather than advancing a clear class-based position on the EU, Corbyn’s position ended up appearing an unclear, pro-Remain fudge that threatened to simply prolong the Brexit impasse rather than resolving it on a basis that benefits working people. This was a long way from where he started back in 2015, with principled opposition to the EU as a pro-austerity bosses’ organisation combined with a firm commitment to internationalism and anti-racism.
Corbyn should have posed as an alternative to the EU a socialist Europe – based on the co-operation of working-class people across the continent. His failure to put the class issues centre stage in this debate allowed the Tories to cynically appeal to working-class Leave voters, posing as the alleged ‘defenders of democracy’ against an establishment stitch up.
These lessons must be learned, or such mistakes can be repeated with even worse consequences.
In her campaign now, Long-Bailey should be pointing towards Europe - not towards the capitalist EU, but to the tremendous strike movement sweeping France. This represents an incredible rebellion against the ‘centrist’ president Macron, whose election was greeted with euphoria by the Blairites and their acolytes. As socialists pointed out at the time, Macron’s real agenda, which he has in common with Britain’s ‘centrists’, was brutal attacks on the working class. His attempt to raise the retirement age and cut pensions has spurred on this latest mass movement, which followed on swiftly from the huge protests of the ‘Gilets Jaunes’ last year.
Indeed, Long-Bailey could point towards the US as well. There, Sanders’ tremendous momentum shows the deep desire of working-class people for change. Meanwhile the attempts by the Democrat establishment to thwart this, dramatically clear in the Iowa Democratic Caucus, should warn of how fiercely this will be resisted.
Richard Burgon, a candidate for the deputy leader (who Socialist Alternative is also critically endorsing) has been making better points. His pledge to be an ‘organiser in chief’ points toward what’s really needed – the transformation of the Labour into a fully democratic party of working-class struggle, rooted in every local community and based around socialist ideas. Crucial to achieving this would be for Labour in local government to stop attacking through austerity those very communities in which it ought to be building.
The last month has seen prominent announcements, from the so-called ‘Corbyn council’ in Salford, Greater Manchester, as well as some of Labour’s right-wing figures such as Liverpool mayor Joe Anderson, that ‘enough is enough’ – that Labour cannot continue with local government cuts. Such proclamations should be treated with deep scepticism when they come from figures like Anderson, who have dutifully and happily passed on devastating austerity for almost a decade.
More often than not, such statements conceal plans for cuts by stealth, or for attacks on working-class living standards via other means – such as council tax increases.
But they also speak to the real anger that exists in local communities. A fighting strategy, based on councils refusing to make any further cuts, and using remaining reserves and borrowing powers to set needs budgets, could, if combined with the mass mobilisation of workers and communities to fight for the extra funding needed, be the source of a huge crisis for the government. The more widely such a strategy were to be taken up, the more devastating a crisis it could create for Johnson – with the potential to force him from office.
Johnson’s government is not nearly as strong as it appears. He might think that Brexit day was a personal triumph, made possible by his new-found parliamentary majority, but all the pomp masks reality.
Johnson now faces a year of difficult negotiations with the EU, in which the arrival at a deal is not guaranteed. Simultaneously he is supposed to be wooing back Trump after the agreement with Chinese company Huawei over Britain’s 5G infrastructure led US vice-president Mike Pence to threaten that Johnson’s decision might prove a ‘deal-breaker’.
Most importantly, the coalition the Tories assembled on the issue of Brexit to pull off the election victory does not equate to deep and real support for the pro-cuts, pro-big business policies their government espouses. In fact, the opposite is true. There is less support now than there has ever been for neoliberal austerity.
These cracks all exist and have the potential to widen. But spontaneous combustion is not the most likely scenario for this government. Forcing them back and forcing them out requires the intervention of the workers’ movement. It requires a fighting strategy from the trade unions, starting with a properly mobilised, huge national demonstration, focusing on the attacks on the NHS, in the spring and building towards escalating and co-ordinated strike action - resisting every attack in the private and public sectors.
If necessary, this means preparing to carry out action in defiance of the anti-trade union legislation. It means vigorously opposing the introduction of new such laws, including those planned to target transport workers.
We fight for
Local conferences of resistance, bringing together trade unions, community campaigns, climate strikers and socialists in order to discuss the first steps in the fightback against the Johnson government
Fight the cuts. Long-Bailey and Burgon should call on Labour councils to stop implementing cuts, instead using reserves and borrowing powers to implement needs budgets, and mobilising working-class people to support this
Kick out the Blairites and transform Labour. No return to the right. Organise to prevent a Keir Starmer victory and fight to turn Labour into a party of working-class struggle, with genuine democracy including mandatory reselection, and based around socialist ideas. No space in Labour for pro-capitalist politics
Trade union led action to build a mass movement to kick out the Tories. For a major national demonstration in the spring, focussed on defending our NHS, as part of building towards escalating and co-ordinated strike action - resisting every attack in the public and private sectors
The socialist alternative to capitalist austerity: democratic, public ownership of the major monopolies and an economy planned to meet the needs of people and planet
No to racism and bigotry. For decent jobs, homes and services for all. Build working-class solidarity across borders in the fightback against austerity and capitalism